60-Second Science

Pixie Camera Captures Precious Pixels

A camera that could literally balance on the head of a pin could find use in research, robotics and medicine. Cynthia Graber reports

Cameras were once big and bulky. Today, really good cameras fit in your pocket. And now, researchers at Cornell have developed a camera that’s just a half-millimeter on each side and a hundredth of a millimeter thick.

The lens-less device is called a Planar Fourier Capture Array. It’s a flat piece of doped silicon. Each of its pixels is sensitive to specific incident angles and supplies a component of the mathematical operation called the Fourier Transform to produce an image about 20 pixels across. The details of the new camera are outlined in the journal Optics Letters. [Patrick Gill et al., "A Micro-Scale Camera Using Direct Fourier-Domain Scene Capture"]

Animals like the nautilus manage with lens-less eyes. The images aren’t necessarily sharp, but they’re still useful. Same with this tiny camera.
Patrick Gill, who headed the project, had been trying to create a lens-less implantable device to detect brain neurons that, due to modifications, glow when they’re active.

The camera his team came up with could cost just pennies to produce, and could find use in surgery, research and robotics. An insect-sized robot with tiny silicon cameras could tell light from dark and perceive general shapes. After all, the flatworm planaria does just fine with eyes that are arguably not as good.

—Cynthia Graber

[The above text is an exact transcript of this podcast.]

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